Clairton is dead, long live Clairton

Christopher Briem
5 min readJul 1, 2021

The following op-ed was first published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on June 6, 2021. The version below includes additional notes and links not included in what was published by the Post-Gazette.

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U.S. Steel’s recent announcement that it would not proceed with an expected billion-dollar investment across its local plants has reignited old debates on the linkages between Pittsburgh’s past and its future. Yet what remains of steel production in the region is at best a shadow of the prodigious industrial output that came from southwestern Pennsylvania.

Efforts to keep open the Clairton Works, along with it’s codependent Edgar Thomson and Irvin Works, is the last battle of an economic war long lost — predetermined by economic forces that long ago eviscerated Pittsburgh’s geographic competitiveness as the nation’s center for steel production.

However long the remaining parts of the regional steel industry continue to operate, communities in Clairton, Braddock and the remaining mill towns of the Mon Valley need to finally plan for the inevitable future without heavy industry and finding strategies to build new paths forward to rebuild economic prosperity.

The traumatic contraction of heavy industry across southwestern Pennsylvania now dates back four decades — the tail end of a much more extended period of decline. The painful truth is that the competitiveness of steel production across southwestern Pennsylvania peaked a full century ago. To understand steel’s inexorable decline here, you have to look back to the reasons steel first agglomerated in Pittsburgh and its environs.

More than five decades ago, in a study sponsored by the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association, economists at the University of Pittsburgh described how in the latter half of the 19th century “coal and metallurgy came together” in Pittsburgh “like twin supernovae, impelling into rapid expansion all elements of the economy which were aligned with them” but also “expelling into oblivion those which were not.” (1)

Steel, coal and coke are all part of the same economic history that has shaped Pittsburgh for over a century and a half. It was in 1859 that the Clinton Furnace was built on Carson Street across from Downtown Pittsburgh. The furnace proved that coke made from the nearby Connellsville seam of bituminous coal was uniquely able to be used in the blast furnaces that transformed iron ore into pig iron. For decades, coke made with coal sourced elsewhere proved unusable — giving southwestern Pennsylvania an enviable competitive advantage as the second industrial revolution powered explosive demand for iron and then steel.

That technical innovation gave coal-rich Pittsburgh, which was already a successful region for energy-intensive industries like iron and glass, an overwhelming advantage in ore-based steel production. But that success came with a cost, and Pittsburgh’s once far more diversified economy would be subsumed by the steel industry by the beginning of the 20th century.

Ironically, the seeds of Pittsburgh’s future decline can be traced to the startup of the Clairton Works, one of the first and largest coke works ever constructed in the United States. The immense demand for industrial coke during World War I pushed the industry to evolve beyond the distributed production of coke in small beehive ovens that stretched across southwestern Pennsylvania. Larger byproduct coke works such as at Clairton not only took advantage of vast economies of scale but also could use coal sourced from a much wider range of regions across the country. (2)

The decoupling of steel production from coal sourced from the Connellsville seam catalyzed the growth of steel production across the nation, growth that would become a direct threat to Pittsburgh’s industrial dominance. But by the middle of the 20th century, yet another threat to Pittsburgh’s competitiveness in steel production was growing. Later described by Harvard economist Clayton Christensen as a prototypical disruptive technology, the emergence of electric-arc minimills completely transformed the economics of the modern steel industry — soon becoming a direct threat to all legacy steel producers and the regions where those producers were concentrated. (3)

Minimills rely on electric furnaces, which have no need for the coal and coke that is the crux of the integrated steel production of Pittsburgh. Instead of iron ore, minimills relied on scrap steel, which was sourced across the country. Smaller minimills were likewise less dependent on river transportation for both key inputs and the delivery of products, giving them a freedom of location far greater than the integrated steel plants of Pittsburgh.

As a result, new minimills have emerged in regions across the nation and the world, not dependent on the specialized supply networks that had evolved in Pittsburgh.

There is no mystery why steel production eventually contracted so completely in Pittsburgh. There will likely never be an emergent industry that survives in one region for as long as steel remained concentrated in Pittsburgh. The steel industry will survive, and newer technologies such as hydrogen-fueled blast furnaces can make steel production much greener than it has ever been in the past, but Pittsburgh will never again have any of the geographic advantages that catalyzed steel production here.

For sure, parts of Pittsburgh’s steel economy have transformed into more competitive versions of their past selves. Specialty steel including production of titanium and advanced alloys has evolved in the region, as has a steel-focused professional services industry that supports a global steel industry. (4) But the vestige of ore-based steel production that continues exists in Pittsburgh due to sheer historical inertia has limited remaining competitiveness in the region, regardless of growing concerns for environmental regulation that impacts older plants.

For Clairton, the Mon Valley and the Pittsburgh region, looking backward and hoping for some future reindustrialization is counterproductive at best and, at worst, exacerbates the difficult transition that will continue. Brownfield redevelopment and communitywide economic transition take decades, if not generations.

A deliberative plan for how Clairton can thrive without its coke works should have begun decades ago, but having failed that, needs to begin today.

Notes

(1) Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association, At the Forks, vol. 4 of the Economic Study of the Pittsburgh Region, 1965, I–19.

(2) Coal and Coke Resource Analysis — Western Pennsylvania, Northern West Virginia, 1992, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service Center, p. 31; “Memorandum on a Program for Community Planning in the Pittsburgh District” (Bureau of Business Research, University of Pittsburgh, July 22, 1935)

(3) Christensen, Clayton M. The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1997. Christensen, Clayton M. 1997. The Innovator’s Dilemma. New York, NY, USA: HarperCollins, pp. 79–84; see also Frank Giarratani, Ravi Madhavan & Gene Gruver, 2013. “Steel industry restructuring and location,” in: Frank Giarratani, Geoffrey J.D. Hewings & Philip McCann (ed.), Handbook of Industry Studies and Economic Geography, chapter 1, pages 11–37, Edward Elgar Publishing. Cheltenham/Northampton.

(4) Carey Durkin Treado, Pittsburgh’s evolving steel legacy and the steel technology cluster, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, Volume 3, Issue 1, March 2010, pp. 105–120.

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